The National Library of Wales has published new images of one of Wales’s greatest literary treasures. It is the last of the Four Ancient Books of Wales to appear online.
The thirteenth-century Book of Aneirin, owned by Cardiff Council, and now kept at Aberystwyth, is one of the most important of Welsh books. It was written on animal skin by monks during the last decades of Welsh independent rule, and contains ‘the Gododdin’, a series of elegies commemorating warriors who died in battle at the end of the sixth century. At that time, parts of Northern England and Southern Scotland were ruled by Brythonic kingdoms who were attempting to guard their frontiers against the territorial advances of English settlers. After feasting for a year at Din Eidyn (modern day Edinburgh), 300 crack troops from the kingdom known as Manaw Gododdin marched south to face the English at a strategic point known as Catraeth (probably the modern-day garrison town of Catterick, Yorkshire). After a fierce battle, only 3 Brythonic warriors escaped with their lives, among them the poet Aneirin. He then composed a series of stanzas in a form of early Welsh, commemorating the slain young warriors.
Although they went to their deaths, the young men of Edinburgh butchered their enemies, and their ferocity and unrelenting savagery is celebrated by the poet. These youths would “sooner go to battle than to a wedding feast”, and their goal was to ensure that “the clash of spears echoed in the heads of mothers” as they “paid for their mead” with their lives. They were defeated, but their valiant attempt was regarded as being heroic, and not in vain.
A great emphasis is placed on the fact that the warriors died to fulfil their obligations to their Edinburgh patron, who had fortified them with strong drink during the previous year of preparation for battle.
Images of the Book of Aneirin are published to coincide with a popular exhibition which is drawing crowds to the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth. 4 Books: Welsh Icons United is the first-ever opportunity for the public to view all early Welsh manuscripts together in one place, including the Red Book of Hergest, on loan from Jesus College Oxford.
Never before has the opportunity arisen for visitors to see all of Wales’s early literature brought together in one venue. The icing on the cake is that the last one of the Four Ancient Books of Wales has finally secured an online presence, and can be seen and appreciated by a worldwide audience. It now joins the Aberystwyth-based Black Book of Carmarthen and Book of Taliesin, and Oxford-based Red Book of Hergest, in cyberspace.